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Free trade agreements come in for criticism

Gulf Times, Qatar

Free trade agreements come in for criticism

By Business Reporter

25 April, 2007

Bahrain yesterday said it was a “shame” to allow agricultural issues to upstage the WTO negotiations, while Iran held that the increasing free trade pacts have undermined inter-regional dialogues and called for a regional economic and security council.

“It is really a shame to allow agriculture to undermine the Doha round of WTO negotiations,” member of Bahrain’s House of Representatives Jassim Hussein told the seventh Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade, which will conclude today.

Saying that WTO talks were at a “critical” stage, he warned the free trade agreements (FTAs) could undermine the successful completion of the Doha round.
The snail’s pace of movement in the WTO talks was due to subsidies given by the US government to farmers, he said. Washington provided $180bn in assistance to farmers, who formed a bulk of the vote bank, he pointed out.

Citing the growing inclination of the US and European Union (EU) to have FTAs, especially with the GCC countries, he said such agreements could also undermine the integration of the region.

Moreover, the FTAs came with conditions, he said, referring to the US demand on Bahrain to enact intellectual property rights.

He also noted that some of the developing countries had a role in compounding the problems because of their tariffs.

Cautioning that the world “is almost seeing a failure of the Doha round of talks”, Dr Mohamed Nahavandian, adviser to the Iranian president, said FTAs were on the rise and “undermined” the inter-regional dialogue.

The economic and security issues could not be compartmentalised, he said, adding that was why Iran had proposed a Regional Economic and Security Council.

Stormy Mildner, senior researcher and foreign trade expert at the German Institute for International and Security Studies, said: “We have to get used to failure of the Doha round” and there were systemic costs for failure, which would be more for developing countries than for the developed nations.

One of the systemic risks could be the effect on dispute settlement and developing countries were less likely to win a dispute at a regional level.

Norway’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Liv Monica Stubholt said there was indeed a gap between North and South but it was essentially relating to poverty, which needed to be addressed.

“The issue is whom do we work with to narrow the gap,” she said.

She said there was a need for greater dialogue and co-operation among society, businesses and non-governmental organisations to address the issue.

However, chairman of the Council of American Islamic Relations and Professor of Finance in Florida University Parvez Ahmed said there was a need to redefine poverty as even within the developed countries there were people who suffered deprivation.